The Bar Mitzvah in our shul this past Shabbos was unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever attended; but that's simply because the young man is unlike any other Bar Mitzvah I ever met before.
Reuvain is a child with Down's Syndrome. It only takes a single glance at Reuvain to know that he's not quite like you and I. Despite the fact that he's been around for thirteen years, his height and face are more reminiscent of that of a seven year old. His speech can sometimes be unclear and he occasionally has issues dealing with certain social situations, including large and noisy crowds.
In the six years that I've been davening in my present shul, I've come to feel that I know Reuvain to some extent. His is the face that I see when I lain. I say that because whenever he is present in shul during laining, he takes a chair and stands on the opposite side of the bimah from me. From there he will watch and listen attentively as I lain. He’s also often the one “in charge” of placing and removing the cover of the Torah in between aliyos. Usually, at some point toward the end of the laining, he will ask me for the yad, as he likes to hold on to it. My usual response to him is that I still have two or three or four (or however many) aliyos still to lain before I can give it to him. He'll look at me and smile and wait patiently until the end of laining so that I can give him the yad. In some ways, it's become a bit of a game between us. In the past, I've told him that he can have the yad after I finish the aliya after kaddish, but he still asks, and so I'll still him "three more aliyos" or "two more aliyos."
In truth Reuvain is a very special person in our shul -- and that is a testament to both his parents and the people in our shul. It is unfortunate that in the past, children such as Reuvain were hidden away, lest their very existence bring shame the family and ruin chances for shidduchim for the other members. It's even more unfortunate that this type of attitude actually still exists in some places. Reuvain's parents, on the other hand, never subscribed to this mode of thinking. They have done their best to integrate Reuvain into the shul to the best of his capabilities. He comes to shul nearly every week and davens and participates as best he can. As I mentioned earlier, he is always present and watching during laining. When the Sefer Torah is taken out of the aron, he is there to help, and when it's being put away, he's there waiting to kiss the Sefer and help put it away. Reuvain has never been hidden away by his parents -- he is one of their children and, to the best of his ability, they and their other children have tried to fit him in and mainstream him as much as possible.
The people (and especially the children) in the shul have embraced Reuvain as one of their own. It's all too easy and common for children to make fun of another child who is different -- and there is no denying that Reuvain is different in just that way that might cause other children to poke fun at him. But that's not what the children in our shul do. Instead, he's one of them. I have a very vivid memory of Simchas Torah a few years ago where Reuvain was dancing in the shul with his stuffed Torah and all the other children in the shul were dancing in a circle around him, celebrating with him, making him the focus of their celebration. The adults, too, welcome Reuvain with open arms. After davening he will often go around to wish "Good Shabbos" to all the men in shul, and they will all shake his hand and with him a "Good Shabbos" in return.
I have a slightly more personal connection with Reuvain than the average person in our shul. For some reason that I have yet to fathom, Reuvain has taken a liking to me personally. He has somehow locked on to me as a figure of admiration and friendship. Perhaps one short story will illustrate this and provide some background for what happened this past Shabbos.
In our shul, the custom is to give pre-Bar Mitzvah boys individual aliyos on Simchas Torah. Reuvain had been practicing the b'rachos for his Bar Mitzvah and knew what to say if he wanted to have an aliyah. Reuvain was given the opportunity to have an aliyah and was somewhat ready to go, but when his turn came, he got cold feet and didn't want to go. So, we called up some other boys instead and, after each one was finished, we gave Reuvain the opportunity to have the next aliyah. This continued until we got up to the very last aliyah before Kol HaN'arim. He was then told that if he wanted to have an aliyah, it would have to be then. In the end, with his father's help, he mustered up the courage and took his first aliyah. Amid tears of joy, his parents watched as he said the b’rachos on the Torah and stood there for his first aliyah. I was later informed by Eeees that Reuvain was asked what made him change his mind and agree to have an aliyah. He said that he did it for me. Needless to say, I felt extremely honored and touched.
I knew in advance that, for his Bar Mitzvah, Reuvain was supposed to read the Maftir. His father had been telling me in the months leading up to the big day that he had been practicing with his teacher and that he had been making wonderful progress. I hadn't heard him practicing his laining, but I had heard him practicing Ain Kailokeinu and Aleinu and, over time, I could see his progress there. I figured that if he could lain the Maftir, it would be a wonderful thing. I certainly didn't expect anything more.
So there we were on the big day in shul. All manner of friend and family were gathered to watch this special boy become Bar Mitzvh. I finished laining the parsha and returned to my seat so that Reuvain could lain the Maftir. However, after the gabbai called Reuvain up to the Torah, we could hear him saying "Don't want" from his seat. The poor kid probably wasn't prepared for the large crowd of people and retreated into his shell. His father took him outside to try to calm him. In the meantime, the congregation waited.
After about ten minutes (and after consulting with the Rav), his parents decided to try slowly acclimatizing him to the crowd. They brought Reuvain into the shul and all the men except for his father and his Bar Mitzvah teacher left. While everyone was outside, Reuvain practiced the laining again. After he practiced it once, Reuvain's brothers and some other relatives were brought back in, and he practiced the laining again. After that, some more men (including myself) were brought back in and he did it yet again. Finally, the rest of the men were brought back into the shul and this time, he lained the Maftir with the b'rachos. I'd probably be lying if I said there wasn't a single dry eye in the house, but there certainly were quite a few more wet ones than there are at a standard Bar Mitzvah. After his aliyah, while we were all singing Mazel Tov, his Bar Mitzvah teacher picked him up and began dancing with him. You could see the love and caring that he had for that child.
To my surprise, Reuvain wasn't quite done. After finishing the Maftir (and after one more "practice session" without everyone leaving the room), Reuvain recited the b'rachos for the haftorah and then proceeded to read the entire haftorah (and recite the b'rachos afterward), an accomplishment that completely shocked and amazed not only myself, but just about everyone in shul. The Rav of our shul, a fellow who doesn't often get flustered, was so completely moved by Reuvain's accomplishment that he could barely speak. You could hear his voice breaking from emotion as he gave the d’rasha (or as much of it as he could) after the haftorah was completed.
In addition to Reuvain's accomplishment, there was also the attitude of the people in the shul. The whole process of getting Reuvain comfortable enough to be able to lain added about thirty minutes to the davening. It certainly would have been within the rights of anyone in the shul to stand up and protest on grounds of tircha d'tzibbura. But the fact of the matter is that no one complained about the delay or about being asked to leave the shul and return. Everyone did it willingly for this special young man.
I’m not normally the type of person to get chocked up or overly emotional. I sometimes like to pride myself on my ability to keep my emotions reasonably in check. In addition, I have over twenty years experience in teaching bar mitzvah boys how to lain and nearly twenty years experience as a parent. I sometimes like to think that, when it comes to Bar Mitzvahs, I’ve “seen it all” and that there is little that can move me emotionally. For example, when Walter and George became Bar Mitzvah, I was certainly very joyous and felt a lot of pride, but I did not become all choked up about it. But for this little boy things were different. This is a kid – no, make that this is a young man – who has had to struggle to developmentally grow and thrive in his life. This is a young man who, because of his dedication and the love and devotion of his parents and teachers, was able to get up on his Bar Mitzvah day and exceed everyone’s expectations of what he was able to accomplish.
Some people may have been able to hold their emotions in check. The Rav of the shul, as I mentioned above, was barely able to. As for me, it was hopeless. I was too overcome with emotion. After the Rav finished speaking, I went into an isolated spot of the shul, and I sat down and cried.